By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Over the course of a two-week break from actual football games, you hear a whole lot being bandied about here in New England. And this week, after the playoff matchup had been set, the majority of what you heard had to do with the Houston Texans having absolutely no shot to defeat the Patriots in Foxboro.
The Felger & Massarotti program pushed the already-ludicrous line up to 21.5 points. Sports Illustrated’s Greg Bedard put it bluntly: “The Texans have no chance to win. They have no chance.” Our expert panel unanimously went with the Patriots, with an average predicted score of 34-13. Dan Shaughnessy wrote a whole column on it. Some shortsighted writers couldn’t even be bothered to write about the game.
And, you know what, they all might be right. This game could turn out as expected, with the Patriots winning soundly.
But nothing in an NFL football game ever happens with ease — especially in the playoffs. Whichever team emerges as the victor in this contest will be the one that executes a winning game plan to near-perfection for 60 minutes. It’s probably going to be the Patriots, but this is sports, where stranger things have happened.
So here’s what to watch for when the two-week wait finally comes to an end on Saturday night in Foxboro.
If there’s one way to flip a game upside-down, it’s by forcing a turnover. An opening-drive interception by the Jets is what kicked off a stunning playoff upset in Foxboro six years ago, as Patriots fans no doubt recall with a lack of fondness.
This is an area that greatly favors the Patriots, whose plus-12 turnover differential was third-best in the NFL. Houston’s minus-7 was tied for the sixth-worst, thanks in large part to Brock Osweiler’s generous 15 interceptions.
But last week against Oakland, Houston picked off three Connor Cook passes while not turning the ball over themselves, and that was as big a reason as any for the Texans advancing to the divisional round.
The Patriots have also been a bit fortunate this season, as only five of their 11 fumbles from offensive skill players were recovered by an opponent. If the Texans can strip a ball and secure it deep in Patriots territory in the early going, it could go a long way in shaping the game. On the flip side, an early Houston turnover could doom the Texans before they ever get rolling. The Texans lost the turnover battle 3-0 in their last visit to Foxboro.
The Houston Texans’ defense is legitimate. First in the NFL in yards allowed, 11th in points allowed, fifth in passing touchdowns allowed, seventh in opponents’ passer rating. It’s not the best defense in the league, but it is pretty good. And on Saturday evening, it will face a most difficult challenge in trying to limit Tom Brady.
“Limit” is the key word here. The Texans should not expect to stop Tom Brady, but if they can reasonably keep things in control and prevent him from putting up more than two touchdowns, this could be a game.
That effort will start, No. 1, with not allowing a game-breaking type of play, a la Julian Edelman at Miami or Chris Hogan vs. Baltimore. That’s the type of defensive lapse that the Texans simply cannot afford to endure if they want to be competitive.
Beyond that, the Texans will need a plan for Julian Edelman. He wasn’t much of a factor last time these teams met (four catches for 38 yards), but that was with Jacoby Brissett at QB. Brissett only threw the ball 19 times that night; Brady might throw his 19th pass with 12 minutes remaining before halftime.
But if Romeo Crennel can figure out a way to bracket Edelman and take him out of the offensive equation, and if they can cover Martellus Bennett reasonably well, then they’ll at least be making the task somewhat difficult for Brady. If they can’t do that, then the game should play out as expected.
Watch Out For DeAndre
The Patriots defense has performed well all season, but it has occasionally given up a big play for a score. And if there’s anyone on Houston who poses a threat to suddenly come through with a 60-plus-yard touchdown reception, it would be DeAndre Hopkins.
The Pro Bowl receiver’s greatest accomplishment this year was making 78 receptions for 954 yards and four touchdowns despite Brock Osweiler and Tom Savage serving as the quarterbacks for his team. That’s no small feat!
And he’s coming off a five-catch, 67-yard, one-touchdown performance vs. the Raiders last weekend, a game in which he also drew a pass interference penalty in the end zone. The Patriots did hold him to four catches for 56 yards while keeping him out of the end zone in that Week 3 meeting, and they held him to just three catches for 52 yards when they met late last season.
In order to keep the results the same, the Patriots will need to keep those numbers in that area. Losing track of Hopkins is one of the few areas where the Patriots could get into some trouble.
Nate And Marcus
The Patriots’ offensive line, as a unit, has been excellent this year. It is arguably the No. 1 reason why they finished the year with the best record in the NFL.
And that unit was anchored on its ends by left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Marcus Cannon. According to the Boston Herald’s Jeff Howe, who tracked each lineman throughout the season, Solder was responsible for five sacks, while Cannon was responsible for just three. Of course, keeping Tom Brady in the upright position is paramount to the Patriots’ offense thriving.
And now, in the postseason, the pressure ramps up a bit for the line to perform. Though Solder was not healthy in Denver last year, Cannon was, and he did not fare well. He responded excellently this season in being a reliable rock at right tackle in the absence of Sebastian Vollmer, and now the pressure will be ratcheted back up to postseason level.
The Texans did not record a ton of sacks this year, but they do have some imposing figures who like to get after the quarterback. That effort begins with Jadeveon Clowney, who’s 6-foot-5 and 266 pounds and is finally playing like a No. 1 overall pick should play. Then, there’s Whitney Mercilus, who had two sacks last weekend against Oakland after leading Houston with 7.5 sacks on the season. Benardrick McKinney and his five sacks on the year also warrant attention.
Cannon and Solder should be up to the task, especially at home, where they have the benefit of some varied snap counts to prevent the rush from getting a jump. But, as always, the play of the O-line will be of the utmost importance come Saturday evening.